Former Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo: The woman behind the Strong Republic

Former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo

(In celebration of Women’s Month, Manila Bulletin is publishing stories featuring women who have made outstanding contributions to the country or to their communities.)

Twenty months into her presidency in 2002, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the second female president of the country after Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino, was facing difficult times which she said “try men’s souls and tax a woman’s patience.”

“The daily problems I have faced are among the hardest in our country’s history, and, in fact, even in the world’s recent history. All the more, I am convinced that if we are to confront our problems, we will need strength,” she told members of the business community during the 28th Philippine Business Conference.

Thus was born her administration’s goal of turning the Philippines into a Strong Republic.

She admitted to encountering difficulties in building the Strong Republic in her second State of the Nation Address due to extremely harsh domestic and global conditions, corruption, insufficient tax revenues, and ballooning budget deficit, among many others.

But from 2001 until 2010, she did turn the Philippines into a Strong Republic “with grit and grace” according to her former press secretary, spokesperson, Presidential Management Staff Chief, and Philippine Ambassador to Greece and Cyprus Rigoberto “Bobi” D. Tiglao.

“GMA was grace and grit in her presidency.  She faced crisis after crisis with a steely, calm grace. She was a woman of true grit, unwavering in her vision on how the Republic she led should be strong despite all bricks thrown at her,” Tiglao said.

“But she was also  the sensitive  mother or  sister  — sometimes to a fault —  to her comrades in government.  After all the lies of the Yellows are exposed and buried, she will be remembered as one of our best presidents ever, an exemplar of the best of what women can achieve in our society,” Tiglao added.

Former Press Secretary Ignacio “Toting” Bunye said Arroyo may be the least popular compared to her predecessors and successors “but she delivered where it counted most.”

“Being only the second economist to be elected president (her father President Diosdado Macapagal was the first), she was laser-focused on growing the economy and in significantly reducing the country’s poverty incidence,” Bunye said.

"During her tenure as president, Arroyo nearly tripled the size of the Philippine economy from $74 billion in 2001 to more than $200 billion in 2010."

The Arroyo presidency also takes the credit for establishing a record period of continuous quarterly growth even at the height of the 2008 global financial crisis when other economies floundered.

In his foreword in Arroyo’s memoir Deus Ex Machina published by the Manila Bulletin, Bunye said that during Arroyo’s nine-year presidency, the poverty rate dropped by 13 percent - from 39 percent to 26 percent. "Good macroeconomic fundamentals which prevailed during Arroyo’s presidency eventually resulted in an investment grade rating for the Philippines."

“Up close and personal, I had the rare opportunity to observe her best traits — hard work, discipline, decisiveness, patriotism, and a deep abiding faith,” Bunye said.

Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo Puyat, who was Arroyo’s Agriculture Undersecretary, took the lessons that she learned from the former president to all the government positions that she has been appointed to.

“GMA is a hardworking, hands on, tough, and a decisive leader. Being a renowned economist and academic, her policies and programs were crucial in laying down the foundations of our country’s steady economic growth during her term,” Puyat said.

“I learned a great deal during the years I worked as her Deputy Cabinet Secretary, and I have carried those lessons with me as Undersecretary at the Department of Agriculture, and now as Secretary of Tourism,” she added.

One of Arroyo’s most trusted aides, Elena “Len” Bautista-Horn, described her as “very intelligent, a teacher by heart. Strict but reasonable. Punctual, disciplined. Straight-to-the-point and decisive.”

“She is a good mentor, a caring friend, like a mother. A side not many people know. An inspiration,” Bautista-Horn said.

“She lived by ‘Do your best and God will take care of the rest.’ Tinapak-tapakan pero hindi nawalan ng pag-asa. Nagdasal, nagtiwala, bumangon ng taas-noo. Scarred but stronger. She has the strength of a thousand troops, faith of a loyal soldier,” Horn said.

“She never wished ill of those who persecuted her. Her strong faith in the Lord allowed her to forgive, be humble, and move on.  She is a true leader. One-of-a-kind,” Bautista-Horn, who served as Arroyo’s spokesperson in Congress, Presidential Management Staff Chief, Transportation Undersecretary, Maritime Industry Authority administrator, and Land Transportation Franchising Regulatory Board chairman, said.

In her memoir, Arroyo wrote: “A statesman from a country like the Philippines must protect our national interests by being part realist and pragmatist, part nimble and creative, part charming, part petulant, but always wise enough to blend all of these things with only one objective in mind — to get the best deal for the Filipino people.”

Former Vice President Noli De Castro confirmed that Arroyo was that kind of a “statesman.”

“Many times, she got the best deal for her people,” he said.